“We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African American voters.”
— Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), in remarks during the second Democratic primary debate, July 31
These remarks jumped out at us during the second night of the debate, but we wanted to spend a little time digging into this before rendering a verdict on Booker’s accuracy.
There is substantial evidence that Russia tried to discourage African Americans from going to polls in 2016 via social media. In some states, Republicans arguably have tried to use tactics such as voter identification laws to prevent or discourage people from voting — especially those who already are marginalized and less likely to vote, such as minority communities.
But what’s the evidence that this perfect storm happened in Michigan in 2016 and denied the state’s electoral college votes to the Democrats?
Regular readers know we place a high bar for this sort of claim. Correlation isn’t always causation. Many factors — including even weather on Election Day — affect turnout. It’s difficult to isolate specific reasons for increased or decreased turnout, so readers should be skeptical of politicians who attribute specific factors to turnout.
The race in Michigan was extraordinarily close. Trump beat Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, by about 10,700 votes out of nearly 4.8 million ballots cast.
African American votes, or the lack of them, did make the difference in the state. Bernard L. Fraga, a political scientist at Indiana University, in his 2018 book, “The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America,” calculated that if voter turnout rates by race had been the same in 2016 as in 2012, Michigan would have swung to Clinton. (Instead of losing Michigan by 0.2 percentage points, she would have won by 1.5 percentage points.) He notes, however: “In such a close election, any number of factors could have influenced the result.”
One big factor: Barack Obama was no longer on the ticket. The New York Times, in its own analysis of turnout data, said black turnout in 2016 was roughly what was expected before the election. “On average, white and Hispanic turnout was 4 percent higher than we expected, while black turnout was 1 percent lower than expected,” adding that “was significantly lower than it was four or eight years ago, when Mr. Obama galvanized record black turnout.”
The newspaper noted that African Americans had a weaker track record of voting in elections when Obama was not on the ballot, and that the black turnout looked weak mainly in comparison to stronger turnout by whites and Hispanics. (Turnout was greater among likely white Trump supporters than likely white Clinton supporters.)
So, all things being equal, the loss of Michigan could be explained by weaker but expected black turnout and stronger but unexpected white turnout.
Now, let’s look at what the Russians and Republicans did.
Several reports, including two submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, have detailed how Russia sought to exacerbate and exploit racial tensions in the United States via social media.
“Messaging to African Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African Americans, including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” said a 2018 report published by the University of Oxford, which said blacks were the single group targeted most heavily by Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” linked to the Kremlin. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead.”
A report by New Knowledge agreed. “Some of the most sophisticated IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities,” the report said. “Although they produced content targeting many political and cultural groups, the IRA created a uniquely expansive, interlinked fraudulent Black media ecosystem consisting of their own sites interwoven with authentic Black media and Black-owned small businesses to a degree not seen with other communities or groups.”
The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III also highlighted the IRA’s efforts to target African Americans through “purported Black social justice groups” such as “Black Matters,” “Blacktivist,” and “Don’t Shoot Us,” which alone attracted 250,000 followers. “Collectively, the IRA’s social media accounts reached tens of millions of U.S. persons,” the report said. “Individual IRA social media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.”
As for Republicans in Michigan, we could not find any specific examples of new laws enacted between 2012 and 2016 that could have reduced African American turnout. In fact, the Republican governor in 2012 vetoed a bill that would have required a photo ID for absentee voting.
However, the Michigan Democratic Party filed suit against the Michigan Republican Party, the Trump campaign and Trump adviser Roger Stone just before the election, alleging an effort to “threaten, intimidate, and thereby prevent minority voters in urban neighborhoods from voting in the 2016 election.” The suit was one of several filed in different states, but it did not have many specifics about Michigan. Instead, it was largely framed around an Oct. 27, 2016, report in Bloomberg News that quoted an unnamed Trump official as saying: “We have three major voter suppression operations under way” targeted at white liberals, young women and African Americans.
The suit also noted that Trump regularly claimed fraud would occur at the polls and urged his supporters to monitor precincts in minority neighborhoods — an effort echoed by Stone with a website called StopTheSteal.org. The website sought to sign up Trump supporters who would volunteer to fight voter fraud. (A grand jury has indicted Stone on charges of witness tampering, obstructing an investigation and lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks, but there are signs the Justice Department is still investigating StopTheSteal.)
About 88,000 Michigan voters in the 2016 election did not cast a ballot for president, compared with nearly 50,000 in 2012, while 5 percent opted for a third-party candidate, compared with 1 percent in 2012. That could suggest disillusionment, perhaps spawned by Russian propaganda or other suppression efforts.
Nevertheless, election experts say they see little or no evidence that the activities by the Russians and the Trump campaign actually swayed the election in Michigan.
“African American turnout in Michigan was down from 2012 to 2016, partially because it had previously risen for Barack Obama,” said Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “Clinton also received a lower share of the African American vote than Obama."
“There were Russian-linked Facebook ads that targeted African American voters and voiced opposition to Clinton, but there is not strong evidence that they influenced many voters,” he added. “I have seen little evidence that Republican voter suppression had a major effect in Michigan.”
“There is certainly credibility to the idea that Russians targeted African Americans to suppress their vote. There’s lots of evidence of that from the reports on Russian use of social media (such as in reports submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee). It is also true that Republican legislatures and election officials in some states have passed laws and enacted procedures that appear aimed at making it harder for likely Democrats to vote, and African Americans are the most reliable Democratic voters,” said Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine. “But I have seen no evidence that the extent of these activities in the state of Michigan were responsible for the depression of turnout in the African American community such that it swung the vote in Michigan to Trump.”
The Booker campaign supplied us with a number of links about Russian and GOP activities, but none demonstrated that the purported suppression activities delivered Michigan to Trump.
The Pinocchio Test
Regular readers know we have repeatedly knocked President Trump for confidently claiming Russian meddling had zero impact on the election. This represents the flip side of the argument -- Booker made the specific claim that Russian and Republican efforts to suppress black votes tipped Michigan into Trump’s victory column.
With a narrow margin of less than 11,000 votes, anything is possible, but election experts say there is no evidence the Russian or GOP efforts were successful. Instead, the most likely explanation for the loss was that Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, was on the ballot, so turnout by African American voters returned to pre-Obama levels.
Perhaps that’s an argument for a black candidate like Booker to be on the ticket, but he’s wrong to claim the Russians and the GOP were responsible for Clinton’s loss in Michigan. The burden of proof is on Booker, and he failed to back up his claim. He earns Four Pinocchios.
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